Probably my favorite part of being a \”grown up\” is being able to earn enough money / time off to actually go places with friends, especially when I don\’t get to see those friends very often because they live far away. Jennifer and I have always consciously made an effort to go on trips together pretty much ever since she moved away: Chicago, a Caribbean Cruise, Washington DC and NYC. We were itching to go somewhere again. Our latest destination? Charleston, South Carolina.
We selected Charleston because 1) it\’s in between where we both live so it is not bad to get to and 2) because SOMEONE got pregnant and couldn\’t go on an Alaskan cruise (our original plan) because there are rules about that sort of thing and 3) because Charleston has been ROUTINELY rated as one of the top weekend destinations in the USA, sometimes even beating out NYC, so naturally, my curiosity was peaked.
Saturday, May 27: Arrival
We arrived in Charleston late on Saturday evening. Memorial Weekend plane tickets are expensive and a Saturday evening flight and returning on Wednesday was significantly cheaper (and involved the same amount of vacation time) than a Friday to Tuesday. It worked out really well because earlier that morning, no joke, Evan and I drove from my home in NW Austin to La Grange, TX (~2 hrs) to host an Enneagram Workshop for an LGBTQIA+ Teen spiritual retreat hosted by the Spiritual Pride Project. Needless to say, it was a jampacked day for us. Luckily La Grange is at least in the same direction as the airport, so there\’s that. That all went off without a hitch and before I knew it, Jennifer and her husband Patrick were picking us up at the airport and bringing us to our Charleston home away from home.
We stayed in a 2 bedroom bungalow we found on AirBnB a little north of the downtown area on \”street\” that definitely seemed more like an alley to me. The neighborhood itself was undergoing major gentrification. In a walk down our street alone there were totally dilapidated homes next to brand-new townhomes with BMWs in the driveway. Luckily the place we were at was kept up well and the area turned out to be quiet, safe and within a short drive to downtown, which is basically all I need.
The interior was clean and comfortable. Our host even left us a bottle of red wine, which is always a plus in my opinion. We chatted for a bit, I tried on my Stitch Fix I had just gotten in the mail and we discussed the fashion comeback of the romper at length, which was one of the items in my fix. I didn\’t end up getting it, but we saw rompers pretty much everywhere we looked. Rompers are the new bomber jackets apparently.
Tuckered out from the long day, we unpacked our things and crawled into bed, excited about the new adventure we were going to have in one of the most quintessentially \”Southern\” city in the USA.
Sunday, May 28: Downtown Charleston
A Drinking Town with a History Problem: Downtown Carriage Tour
Out of all the recommendations people gave me about \”things to do in Charleston\”, the most consistent was a carriage ride tour. We chose to do our tour through Palmetto Carriage Works which came highly recommended and we had a great time. We did this first thing so we could get our bearings in this new city and see what it has to offer. Our tour guide was fun and informative and it was a great way to start our day!
Southern Comfort: Brunch @ The Grocery
When I asked Evan what he wanted to do in Charleston, all he really talked about was eating delicious Southern food and Charleston did not disappoint. Our first food adventure was at a rustic, trendy and that kind of upclass/casual you just knew the owners had to work hard to achieve for a southern brunch. Evan got the Shrimp and Grits while I stuck to a sweet Vanilla Marscapone Stuffed French Toast. We also ordered crispy pimento cheese which were kind of like cheese sticks only with creamy, gooey, pimento instead.
So Many Doors!: Joseph Manigault House
Pretty much the only thing I really knew about Charleston prior to coming was that there were all these cool, beautiful historical houses to tour, which I was really interested in doing. Evan, however, was not hugely into the idea of touring houses all day, everyday (which is understandable), so using the power of the Internet we had to narrow down the many historical homes to just a few (for the sake of my marriage). Also, I\’m really into \”the best bang for my buck\” and there are several houses you can buy in combination for a discounted price. When I found out The Charleston Museum (which was close to where we ate brunch AND is \”America\’s First Museum\”) owned a couple houses you could buy as a set, we decided those would be the ones we would go to, along with the Charleston Museum. Seems like a win win win.
We strolled up to the Charleston Museum, anticipating to visit there first, and the admission iPad that took credit card payments was not working. No worries. We can stroll across the street to the Joseph Manigault which judging by the pictures seemed an opulent and refined taste choice. We were not disappointed. It was designed by Gabriel Manigault for his brother, Joseph in 1803. Apparently this guy liked to architect (can that be a verb?) as his hobby and this home was one of the results. It is a a fine example of \”Adam Style\” which is known for the molding and mantels and doors. It was also interesting to see the differences between the \”private spaces\” which didn\’t have nearly the decorative features vs. the entertaining spaces. The MOST interesting aspect of the house (in my opinion at least) was the obsession with symmetry, even constructing fake doors so that the door itself had a counterpart to balance out the room. I also really liked the lovely spiraling staircase that made me feel like a real debutante while I was walking on it.
That Darth Vader Helmet Shouldn\’t Be Here: The Charleston Museum
By the time we were done with the Manigault house, the Charleston Museum had gotten their admission iPad to work. Like I said before, the draw was that this museum was touted as the oldest museum in America which is neat, but as a museum itself was just ok. Granted, Jennifer works for the Smithsonian, so maybe our bar was a little too high. They do have a nice collection of silver and textiles as well as some pretty cool science stuff, but the rock exhibit doesn\’t hold a candle to Houston\’s Museum of Natural Sciences which is what I grew up with, so we were just kind of meh about the whole thing. Also, by this time it was late afternoon and walking around in the sun had taken its toll on our energy levels, which might have had something to do with it.
Another Historical Home: Dinner @ Muse
By the time we were done with the museum, we were a little wiped out. The heat and the humidity really takes a lot out of you and it was *almost* as bad as Texas. At this point we were ready for an afternoon siesta back at the house. We were able to rest, catch up and freshen up before dinner and our subsequent \”night on the town\”.
We went to dinner at Muse, an elegant Mediterranean restaurant in a converted historic home in downtown Charleston. It\’s a two story home that they made into a restaurant, so it has all the homey and cozy feelings of a house with the refined taste of restaurant quality. They also had an extensive wine list, which I simply had to indulge in, even if it made our meal much more expensive. I ordered the homemade gnocchi which was absolutely delicious (probably some of the best gnocchi I have ever had). While it was expensive and took a while, the food was delicious, the atmosphere was intimate and the company was top notch.
I was thoroughly unprepared at the lack of nightlife present in Charleston. I thought that cities that made it to top travel destinations all had great nightlife, but Charleston doesn\’t seem to. It took me a while to figure out what shows might be playing in Charleston when we were there and it doesn\’t seem like a bar/club kind of town. Charleston is more lazy than all that. You want long naps in the afternoon and then get to bed at a reasonable hour. Seeing as I normally don\’t go to bed until 11pm on most nights anyways, we wanted to find at least something to do at night. We settled on a rock-comedy performance by a group called Stuckey & Murray, specializing in EDM (Electronic Dad Music). I guess this was part of the Spoleto fest that was happening all around town.
Stuckey and Murray are a comedy duo (although there was a third guy whose name I don\’t remember and who frankly was the best musician of the trio and who probably deserves to be in the band name, but whatever). Their whole schtick is that they are middle-aged dads who are in a band and \”trying to be cool\” but, you know, their dads so they can\’t really be cool. They have such gems like \”2 Drinks\” a song about only being able to have 2 drinks at a club before you have to stop and \”Misunderstood\” an ode to their female critics. At the end of the night, they closed with a \”Thank You Charleston\” which featured heavily the TD Bank on Bay Street for some unknown reason. They were funny and we thoroughly enjoyed laughing at their antics in the small improv theatre.
Rompers are SUPER in Right Now: Dessert @ The Fudgery
After the show, we decided to wander a bit to go to a coffee shop I had researched about, Kaminsky\’s. Apparently everyone else and their mother also thought that was a great idea because the line was out the door. I don\’t need coffee that badly. Luckily there was a dessert shop down the street called The Fudgery that was still opening. Here is where I discovered that M&Ms make chocolate covered pretzels even better. I have to say, that area of town was a bit hopping. We saw more than one romper pass us by.
Monday, May 29: Plantation Day
Frankly My Dear, I Don\’t Give a Damn: Drayton Hall
When I think of the south, despite the fact that I LIVE in the south, I always conjure up images of lazy, sunny days with a glass of iced tea in a rocking chair on the porch of an historical home overlooking a vast plantation. Needless to say, I was stoked about going to see some plantations.
We first went to Drayton Hall, the ONLY plantation house to survive both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Interesting factoid, during the civil war, when federal forces were basically burning all the plantations to the ground, Drayton Hall was spared because there were smallpox quarantine flags posted outside (signaling to others that there was a smallpox outbreak). Seeing as no one wants to get small pox, they left it alone. Thus, it is the only plantation home in the area that is in it\’s original condition.
This place was very interesting, which was even more impressive because there aren\’t furnishings inside the house to look at. It\’s an empty house, but the details on the walls and ceilings were described in such a way that I was completely engaged the whole tour. The Drayton hall tour guide indulged us with anecdotal stories about how parties would be held upstairs (ultimately damaging the first floor ceiling) and that the Drayton family \”camping\” here because it didn\’t have electricity (or maybe even running water?) as late as the 1960\’s. My favorite part of the house was a section where pretty much all Drayton family members record their heights on this door frame. It\’s protected now and you can see etchings from the 1890s and the 1990\’s right next to each other. They are still doing this, the newest one having been done a couple months before we went. What\’s even better is that one notoriously childfree Drayton woman wrote in the height of her beloved dogs to be a part of the tradition.
I would totally recommend this plantation. It\’s really interesting and while there isn\’t as much to see, it is rich with history and you really get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.
The REAL Story: Magnolia Plantation
Right next door to Drayton Hall is Magnolia Plantation and it is almost it\’s opposite. Drayton Hall had much less to see (pretty much just the house) but Magnolia boasts several different types of tours, gardens, trains, boats, swamps and even a petting zoo. It was also much more crowded compared to where we had just been. Luckily they had a cafe (although the food was not great) and we were able to eat a quick lunch before heading off to the tour we were most excited about: The Slavery to Freedom tour.
To be bluntly honest, Charleston was built on the backs of enslaved people. About 40 percent of enslaved Africans came through Charleston Harbor and the reason this city thrived was because of the work these enslaved people did. The plantations would not have been able to function as profitably as they were able to without the work of these men and women. Too often their contributions are forgotten or worse covered up with the sanitized past we as a society would like to think we had. When we saw that there was a tour specifically addressing slavery at the plantation, we felt like it would be an enlightening, if not sobering, experience.
The importation of enslaved people was officially banned in 1808, so plantations (such as Magnolia) relied on the institution of \”chattel\” slavery which enslaved the children / grandchildren of the enslaved as well. Basically, because you wouldn\’t import new slaves from Africa after 1808, the only way to get more enslaved people was for your existing enslaved people to have babies, hence the importance of having family dwelling structures on the premises. After slavery was abolished, these cabins served as homes for some of the workers who worked at the estate and were actively occupied until the 1990\’s. Now, they have 4 cabins set up, reconstructed to show different time periods that you can walk into and see the evolution from the slave duplex to the 1969 single family home that was fitted for plumbing.
Our tour guide was also very interesting. He has this project where he does around and sleeps in slaves\’ quarters all over the country to spread awareness of the history of enslaved people. There was something that felt a little weird being a white millennial tourist (on a tour with a bunch of other mainly white tourists) looking in on the historical lives of the enslaved as if they were just another interesting tidbit of history and not a devastating institution whose effects we still see today. Because this is a part of history that most of us would like to pretend never happened, having such concrete examples of the reality of slavery right in front of your face feels uncomfortable. This, however, was the best part of the trip to Magnolia and by far the most important.
Note: One thing I learned was that the term enslaved people is preferable to the term slave because enslaved more accurately indicates what was done to them whereas \”slave\” more describes who they are. It also emphasizes the fact that they were people, which given the political climate we see right now is important to remember.
After the slave quarter\’s tour, we went to the main house, which was the kind of southern plantation home that I would have loved to live in. The porch alone was worth it. This home was quite lovely and has hosted myriad famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and boasted such gems as a very creepy portrait of a young girl who perpetually stares at you as well as a set of stars that goes to nowhere (really to a rainwater catching mechanism that is no longer there). They also had an extensive gift shop which was more of a general store after a certain point.
I have a cousin that lives in Charleston, so after the plantations, we thought it would be a good idea to see her (Jennifer) and her family. It is interesting because I had only recently met this cousin of mine (the only one I hadn\’t met in my adult life) earlier this year when she came to Austin for work. When she found out we were going to Charleston she gave us a ton of suggestions to do and see in the area. We went to a place called Coast, a seafood restaurant with the vibe of maybe an upscale chain. The food was delicious and I got to spend some time with my cousin (who regaled us with stories about my dad in much earlier days) and her kids (one of whom I had never met). After dinner our dessert stomachs led us to Peace Pie, an ice cream sandwich shop that specializes in cookie ice cream sandwiches based off of famous pies. I believe mine was a reinterpretation of a Boston Cream Pie which was the perfect sweet ending to a sweet day.
Tuesday, May 30: Fort Sumter & Downtown Charleston
We Are Proud of This Flag: Fort Sumter
Our last full day in Charleston started bright and early to hit the first tour of Fort Sumter of the day. Fort Sumter is the place where the civil war basically began. On April 12, 1861, Confederate Soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter and the fort surrendered 34 hours later. It would take 4 years for the union to get it back. The fort is part of the National Park Service, but because it\’s on an island, you need to take a boat, which they make into a bit of a tour. It was nice to cruise around the harbor and see Charleston from the sea.
Once we got to Fort Sumter, we disembarked to see the grounds. Because it was the first tour of the day, they had the flag ceremony where one of the park rangers talked about the history of Fort Sumter and how meaningful it is now to have the American flag flying. Given that it is 2017 and the news has been ripe with divisive discussion about Confederate statues and race, it was refreshing to be reminded that the American flag is supposed to stand for freedom for ALL Americans, not just the privileged few. When the time came up to hold the flag as it was being hoisted up, Evan and I volunteered to hold it (what can I say, I\’m a participator!).
After that, we listened a bit about the artillery of the fort and how intense the cannons are and moseyed around the grounds. Side note, we also played a bit of Pokemon Go there which proved to be a goldmine of Pokemon and we ended up holding the gym on the fort for a day and a half.
It\’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Food Tour in Charleston
I like food, like a lot and the idea of taking a food tour has always intrigued me, but I am uninterested in paying the hefty price tag ($60? I bet I could do it for cheaper!). And yes, I did. I did a bunch of research and picked places that gave a variety of authentic southern cuisine. First stop, Callie\’s Hot Little Biscuit where we ate these biscuit sandwiches which were hot and delicious. Then, on to Smoke BBQ where we ate Famous Hash and Grits (Brisket hash with cheddar ale grits, mmm) and brown butter mac and cheese. No sooner had we finished sharing our two sides, we were up and on our way to Jestine\’s Kitchen where we shared some southern fried chicken and cornbread (which honestly wasn\’t amazing as the bread was a bit dry, the chicken was on point, though). At this point, our troops were feeling really pretty full, so that when we went to the Moon Pie store (apparently Moon Pies were invented there?) we had to take our treats to go. So after tramping around all of Charleston we were ready to rest up before dinner. Here are pictures from what else we saw while we were walking (in between the food).
Did You Notice the Demographics in Here?: Dinner @ Magnolias
Our last meal in Charleston was at Magnolia, one of the highest rated restaurants in Charleston that came recommended quite a bit from friends that had been before. Even though we weren\’t super hungry (we just ate a ton on the food walk, remember?), we headed to this gem. It is a upscale, sophisticated Southern restaurant and by far the fanciest place we ate at all weekend. I also noticed that the vast majority of the patrons were much older than our group of millennials. I would say the median age was probably 60? Oh well, the food was delicious. I ordered a flat bread appetizer and a side of the best freaking mac and cheese I have EVER eaten. Seriously. It was amazing.
What Harry Potter House Are You?: Hanging Out and Wrapping Up
After dinner we were thoroughly tired and ready to chill out at home and play games (Jack Box and Dammit) and just hang out and talk. We also spent a while on Buzzfeed taking the different quizzes and just enjoying each other\’s company. There is truly nothing better than spending good, quality time with your friends.
Wednesday, May 31: Departure
The next morning we went to the airport, said goodbye to the Holy City and returned to our normal lives. Overall, I enjoyed our time there, but it made me really appreciate living in Austin and all the stuff we have available to do here. It was nice, but I\’m not sure it deserves one of the top destinations in America. Perhaps the slower pace wasn\’t entirely my jam or maybe the heat and humidity reminded me too much of Houston. either way, while we had a great time visiting with our friends, I don\’t have a huge need to go back there anytime soon. All in all, it was a great way to spend the long weekend.